Music is the pleasure of the human soul experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting. - Gottfried Leibniz
I have been intending to write this article for a long while but a couple of things happened recently that started me thinking I should stop letting other things get in the way and just get on with it. But first, to set the scene, a handful of quotes plucked from the Internet:
I pretty much just listen to film scores, but I'll also throw in some Stravinsky, Shostakovich (there is no more perfect music for angry, angry scenes than Portrait of Stalin [Symphony No 10, second movement]), Muse or Nightwish. Honestly, it depends what mood I'm trying to achieve and what genre I'm writing in -- I'm the kind of person that makes individual playlists for each chapter or scene, because I am just that much of a music geek that everything must be perfect. – Naranne, comment on Music to write to…, Script Frenzy
I can’t have any music at all when I’m writing. I get too distracted (maybe because I am a musician myself) and start thinking about other things. Being in silence is best for me, although I can work around noise. But I have never been able to be affective while listening to music! – Dylan Dodson, comment on Tentblogger
For years I wrote with music playing in the background. For one novel, partly set in the 1930s, I so completely immersed myself in the atmosphere by playing the songs from that era that the magical "You Go to my Head" became irrevocably bound up with one of the characters. – Deborah Lawrenson, comment on About Writing
I mostly listen to instrumental music when I write. If there are vocals, they can't be the main focus because when I'm trying to read or write, hearing other words really distracts me. I have so much instrumental music and film scores on my iTunes, though, so I can fit it to just about any mood I need. I think I just hate silence. I can't do anything if I can't hear something – with the exceptions of sleeping and taking tests, of course. – Rebecca Binns, comment on figment
I found this little poll on Matador:
There is no right answer to the question of whether or not one should or should not write while music is playing in the background so I’m not going to present some scientific study which says yay or nay, although there are undoubtedly health benefits attached to music. As with most things when it comes to writing my advice is to suck it and see. I can write with music on or off. If I’m engrossed in what I’m doing I can pretty much write over anything. I started playing music while I was working to drown out my parents. They had two rooms downstairs, one – inexplicably – called ‘the house’ and the other, which I monopolised from about the age of twelve and made my office, ‘the front room’. There was only a thin wall between the two and so, as the television was constantly on with them talking over it a lot of the time; I needed something to drown them out.
For some reason I chose classical music. Why, I have no idea. Just as my parents never read, they also never listened to music. We had an old radiogram growing up but that was it until the TV replaced it. Later I discovered the joys of the pop charts – about July 1973 to be specific – which was a good time to get interested in popular music as there was a lot good going on and it just got better, but here’s the thing, I never lost my love of classical music. As I’ve aged, my musical tastes have broadened to include a wide range of music: jazz, folk, blues, country, world – I’ll listen to just about anything – but what I’m passionate about is classical music.
When I was younger I could write over anything – Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Hawkwind, whatever – but as I’ve got older I find myself focusing more and more on instrumental pieces; I’m with Rebecca above, if there are words (English words) I end up listening to them and not the voices in my head. Carrie struggles with German and French lyrics for the same reason, so I tend to watch what choral music I play. Which is a shame because it means that a lot of the stuff I still enjoy doesn’t get played so much these days.
Classical music is one of those terms that make a lot of people shudder and if you ask most people to name a composer of classical music they’ll probably come up with Beethoven or Mozart; perhaps Bach or Vivaldi. If you asked most people who Handel was or Rachmaninoff or Schubert or Wagner, Liszt or Chopin they’d probably guess right and say they were all classical composers and if you played an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 or Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in E major, Op. 8 (the first of the Four Seasons concertos) they would recognise it even if they couldn’t name either the composer or the work. But what about Elena Kats-Chernin's ‘Eliza's Aria’ from her score for the ballet Wild Swans? Ever heard of that? Nope? If you live in the UK, own a TV and happen to watch one of the commercial channels like Scottish Television or Channel 4 you’ll probably have seen an advert for Lloyds TSB. Here’s a reminder:
In April 2010, research undertaken by PRS for Music revealed that the song is the third most performed in UK television advertising. Elena Kats-Chernin was born in Tashkent (now the capital of Uzbekistan – but then part of the USSR), and immigrated to Australia in 1975. The Australian Music Centre lists 357 works by her and I wonder even in Australia (If you’re reading this Lis perhaps you might let us know) how many people know anything about her. I suspect most people would be surprised by just how much classical music they have been exposed to. Naxos has a CD containing nothing but tunes used in TV adverts: see the track list here.
The term classical music is an unhelpful one. It encompasses 1500 years and a lot of different styles but broadly-speaking when people talk about classical music (with a small c) this is what they mean:
- Medieval (500–1400)
- Renaissance (1400–1600)
- Baroque (1600–1760)
- Classical (1750–1830)
- Romantic (1815–1910)
- 20th century (1900–2000)
- Contemporary (1975–present)
Haydn is a Classical composer (with a capital c). So are Schubert and Mozart, in the strictest sense. But the expression ‘classical music’ has been adopted to distinguish it from popular music despite the fact that, these days, most people would consider a polka by Johann Strauss classical music whereas, at the time, it was most definitely popular. It’s just like the word ‘symphony’ – in German, Symphonie was a generic term for spinets and virginals from the late 16th century right through to the 18th century but during the Baroque period, the terms symphony and sinfonia began to be used for a range of large orchestral compositions. It wasn’t until the Classical period with the likes of Mozart and Haydn that it became established as a specific form of composition and it was in this period that we see the rise of the hybrid form, the sinfonia concertante, which is essentially a mixture of the symphony and the concerto genres; in the 20th century this was replaced by the concerto for orchestra where the composers emphasise soloistic and virtuosic treatment of various individual instruments or sections in the orchestra, with emphasis on instruments changing during the piece. An oddity is the organ symphony which is actually only a work for solo instrument.
I like symphonies. If I see a CD with a symphony I’ve never hear I get excited. I need to hear it. Doesn’t matter if I know the composer or not but if I don’t know the composer I really wasn’t to hear it. I’m probably worse when it comes to concertos especially if the solo instrument is an usual one like a tuba; I have a whole CD with British Tuba Concertos on it, the most well-known being the Vaughan Williams. Here’s the opening movement to the Gregson Tuba Concerto though:
Concertos for the likes of the tuba tend to be on the short side because it takes so much wind to play them.
Classical music in the 20th century, as with art and literature, went through a period where it almost seemed that it was going out of its way to alienate its audience or if not exactly to alienate, to at least bamboozle. Take for example this work by John Cage (this is a version for solo piano):
The work is, of course, 4’33”, Cage’s favourite work; a work consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of not playing a musical instrument. You can see why this might confuse the same kind of people who don’t get performance art because they can’t take it home and hang it over the mantelpiece.
Of course there are a lot noisier classical works that have managed to send audiences screaming from the concert halls – the première of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring involved one of the most famous classical music riots in history – and I’m not saying that there aren’t composers out there writing challenging musical compositions because there are. Back in March the Internet radio station Radio Riel broadcast a “Not So Easy Listening” program dedicated to “music that might not otherwise have a place in our programming: long forms, oddities, music that needs explanation, and, yes, sometimes, music that’s hard to listen to.” There is an audience for it and I’m far more tolerant of difficult music than I am of difficult poetry, but some of it needs to be played when Carrie’s not in the house – seriously. But I’m not here to talk about the composers you probably want to avoid. Rather I want to show you that there is a great deal of great classical music out there that can provide a wonderful backdrop to write to. And I’m not talking about musak. I'm looking for something that will complement my writing. It’s no different than a comfortable chair or a good pen if that’s how you prefer to work. These things make a difference.
Let’s start off with my first love: Rachmaninoff. Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was a Russian composer widely considered one of the finest pianists of his day. He also had very big hands. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Rachmaninoff could play a left hand chord of C E flat G C G. It is one thing to play a 12th but another thing to play a 5 finger chord. This is one reason why his piano works are so hard to play well because what he did with ease, ordinary mortals struggle with.
One of the main objections to a lot of modern classical music is that it is tuneless and much of it does neglect melody in favour of harmony and rhythm, but not so Rachmaninoff whose music is famous for its lush tunes. Probably the most famous is his Piano Concerto No 2 which featured prominently in the 1945 film Brief Encounter. But the piece I’d like to feature is the first movement to his Symphonic Dances, written in 1940, just three years before the composer’s death:
The work is remarkable for its use of the alto saxophone as a solo instrument for the only time in a Rachmaninoff composition. Rachmaninoff was apparently advised as to its use by the American orchestrator and composer Robert Russell Bennett. The composition includes several quotations from Rachmaninoff's other works, and can be regarded as a summing-up of his entire career as a composer. – Wikipedia
The central section featuring the saxophone and strings can almost bring me to tears. In fact, I’m listening to it as I’m writing this and I can feel myself welling up.
The next composer I discovered was also a Russian, but more importantly, an Armenian: Aram Ilyich Khachaturian. Everyone will know this guy for his ‘Sabre Dance’, a movement in the final act of his ballet Gayane, a virtuoso piece, not unlike Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee, or, if you’re of a certain age, as the composer of the theme tune to the BBC serial, The Onedin Line. The work that I heard first was his Symphony No 2, ‘The Bell’ – fantastic opening. In some respects it’s not unlike the Rachmaninoff which I’ve just played you. It begins in grand fashion before introducing a haunting melody on the strings:
And strings were what attracted me to my first British composer: Ralph Vaughan Williams (the ‘Ralph’ is pronounced ‘rayf’ if you’ve never heard of him). No one, with the possible exception of the American Samuel Barber, who I came to years later, writes for strings like Vaughan Williams. His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is an outstanding work for double string orchestra and actually has reduced me to tears and I doubt there will be many who have not heard him even in passing, because it gets used so much on TV, at least a part of his work The Lark Ascending. The orchestral version is one of the most popular pieces in the Classical repertoire among British listeners. But, again, I’d like to introduce you to a lesser known piece by him, the second movement to his second symphony, A London Symphony.
I mentioned the American, Barber, as a composer who excelled in writing for strings (and I will get to him, shortly) but the first American I discovered was Aaron Copland whose music, as it happens, also features strings prominently. The first thing I heard by him was the rumbustious ‘Hoe-Down’ from his ballet Rodeo. If you thought that ballets were all tu-tus and men prancing around in tights then think again. Copland’s ballets, Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring are all-American works full of gusto and catchy tunes. Again, though, I’d like you to hear a not-so-well-known piece by him, Quiet City:
Barber’s music certainly is indebted to Copland. What you need to understand is that pretty much before Copland all the music being writer by the Americans was heavily influenced by the European greats. It was decent music, but derivative, and for a long time composers had been looking for a sound that was ‘American’. The first composer who really did this was Charles Ives whose music I love but it is an acquired taste – he thought nothing of having an orchestra playing two different tunes, with different tempos, at the same time (they get around that by having two conductors) – but it’s also great fun, something a lot of people think classical music isn’t. If Ives was the grandfather of modern American music, Copland was its father, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Barber’s most famous piece is his haunting Adagio for Strings (if you’ve seen the film Platoon you’ll know it), an arrangement for string orchestra from the second movement of his String Quartet although other versions exist, most notably his transcription for eight-part choir, as a setting of the Agnus Dei. The first work I heard by him, and the one that is still my favourite, is Night Flight. Like the Adagio for Strings it’s actually part of another work, his Symphony No 2, a work he revised twice but, unsatisfied with the results, he finally withdrew it. He did, however, rescue the second movement which had been inspired by the novel Night Flight by Antoine de Saint Exupéry who is best remembered for his novella, The Little Prince. The work is slow and subdued, and sounds like an elegy for the doomed flyers, pulled to climb up by the calm of the starry night above but trapped by the unforgiving storm below. A repeated piano note suggests the radio beacon calling helpless in the night. I had always assumed it was birds flying at night. In the original work, commissioned by the U.S. Army Air Forces (which he had joined in 1943), Barber introduced an electronic instrument imitating radio signals for air navigation, an effect replaced in the revised version by an E-flat clarinet, and then a piano which is the version I prefer. This is from the revised 1947 version:
Usually I’m wary about composers who incorporate electronics into classical compositions. My first experience was Stockhausen’s Kontakte (five years or so before the first commercial synthesiser became available) and you’ve never heard anything like it:
Electronics have come on a long way since then and I’m not just talking about Switched-On Bach, the album released in 1968 by Wendy Carlos in which we got to hear classics played on synthesisers for the first time. Here’s Mothership by Mason Bates with a short introduction by the composer:
When we were at school we weren’t exposed to a great deal of American music apart from Copland. I knew names – Virgil Thomson, Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions – but that was about it, but I was definitely drawn to learn more about American composers. The same goes for female composers. At school I could only name a handful of contemporary women composers, all British as it happens – Thea Musgrave, Elisabeth Lutyens and Elizabeth Maconchy – but it was many years before I heard anything by them. I knew of Robert Schumann’s wife Clara whose own career was subsumed by her husband’s and I knew of Imogen Holst who concentrated on recording and editing the music of her father to the detriment of her own work, and I’ve recently discovered Doreen Carwithen who acted as secretary and amanuensis to her husband William Alwyn and only returned to her own work after his death and damn good work it is too. I’m delighted to introduce you to the second movement of her Piano Concerto:
I won’t say I have a large collection of works by female composers but I have always gone out of my way to listen to them and to buy them when I could afford them. Often their work appears on compilation albums which is where the single piece I have by Imogen Holst resides but I’m pleased to say that more complete CDs featuring women like Elena Kats-Chernin are beginning to appear and at affordable prices thanks to record labels like Naxos and it’s them I have to thank for introducing me to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Here’s her Concerto Grosso featuring some interesting graphics and a definite nod to both Copland and Handel:
A few years ago I found myself asking a question of myself: How many Australian composers can you name? I came up with none. Actually I knew two, Malcolm Williamson, Master of the Queen's Music from 1975 until his death in 2003, and Percy Grainger, who arranged the English folk tune Country Gardens for orchestra; I had assumed both were English. After that I was stuck and so I started buying up the stuff – at the time I was flush and was ordering the CDs straight from Australia – and that was where I first learned of Kats-Chernin. But there are a lot more. Less than I imagined – one tends to forget that the majority of population crowd around the coast – but there were a few treasures there including Nigel Westlake, Ross Edwards, Peter Sculthorpe, Carl Vine and also the New Zealander, Douglas Lilburn. Sculthorpe is the best known internationally and the one I took to and bought most of. Here’s a marvellous (and typical) piece, Earth Cry:
When I was young I was attracted to dynamic music and usually by Russians like Prokofiev or Shostakovich, the popular ones. Only later did I start investigating lesser known Russians like Edison Denisov, Reinhold Glière, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, Vasily Kalinnikov and Mieczysław Weinberg who, according to one reviewer at least, is regarded as, "the third great Soviet composer, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich." But one of the most dynamic composers I came across early on was actually a Hungarian, Béla Bartók, and I fell for him in a big way. The opening movement to his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta gets used quite often as a backing track on TV and in films (Kubrick used it in The Shining) and it is an astounding work once you get into it, even if the start is a bit messy – and by ‘messy’ I mean polyphonic. Here, however, is the last movement:
As I’ve grown older I’ve found myself drawn to quieter pieces and a group of composers generally referred to as Minimalists including Steve Reich, John Adams, Michael Nyman, Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt although I veer toward the mature output of each of them. I would think that Nyman is probably the best known for his soundtrack to The Piano but my favourites are Pärt and Glass especially. Here’s the track ‘The Sacrifice’ from The Piano:
Nyman has since worked the music into a bona fide concerto which I own. Glass, like Nyman, is part of a modern breed of composers that are as comfortable writing for the silver screen as they are for the concert hall. In the next part of this indulgence I’m going to talk more about the film composers I love, but in the meantime here’s something by Glass, the first movement to his Violin Concerto No 1 which I think is probably my favourite violin concerto of all time, although I also rank the Barber and the Khachaturian. This is not to dismiss the others out there like the Beethoven, the Brahms or the Sibelius and I have copies of them all, along with a lot of others, but these are the ones I particularly connect with:
Modern piano concertos struggle to hold their own against the Romantics, I’m afraid. Again I have a soft spot for both the Barber and the Khachaturian but the Beethoven (No 5), the Brahms (Nos 1 and 2), the Grieg, the Tchaikovsky (No 1) and the Rachmaninoff (Nos 2 and 3) are hard acts to follow. And I’m not even going to mention the Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. The Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is well worth a listen, as is the Concerto for Piano 3 Hands and Orchestra by Malcolm Arnold, but here’s a far gentler offering by the Polish composer Wojciech Kilar:
Symphonies? Christ, where do I start? The list is enormous. The first I ever listened to was Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 ‘Pastoral’ on an old reel to reel recorder. I still have the tapes so I guess I still have the symphony, but I listened to it over and over and over again and completely sickened myself of it. If I had to choose a single symphony by Beethoven to recommend, it would actually be his Eighth Symphony because it tends to get overshadowed by the Ninth and the Seventh. His Fifth is still remarkably resilient, I have to say. On the whole, if you’re only just getting a feel for classical music I’m not sure that you want to dive into symphonies first of all; concertos are more accessible. That said, a lot of contemporary composers don’t bother with what they think are old-fashioned terms like ‘symphony’ and ‘concerto’. Harmonium by John Adams is a choral symphony in all but name and Burleske, by Richard Strauss, is effectively a piano concerto.
If you are keen for a few contemporary symphonies to have a go at, I might suggest Alan Hovhaness, one of the great twentieth century symphonists. He has written 67 numbered symphonies; 43 of them after his sixtieth birthday. Interestingly Havergal Brian, the English composer, also wrote most of his 32 symphonies late in life; 14 in his eighties and another 7 in his nineties. The world record, by the way, belongs to the American, Rowan Taylor, who composed 265 although the Finn, Leif Segerstam, at 244, is catching up fast, although I’ve not heard anything by either of them. Back to Hovhaness: He’s probably best known for his work And God Created Great Whales which integrates whale song into the actual composition much like Rautavaara did with his Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra or as Respighi did with Pines of Rome which incorporates a recording of a nightingale at the end of the third movement. Here is the opening to his Symphony No 22 ‘City of Light’:
I mentioned the New Zealander Douglas Lilburn earlier. His output is not huge – some composers like Ruggles and Varèse produced very little, usually because they were perfectionists – but it includes three excellent symphonies. Here’s the opening to his First Symphony:
In Britain we have a fine collection of symphonists: Vaughan Williams (9), Malcolm Arnold (9), Rubbra (11), Rawsthorne (3), Bax (7), Britten (2) and most of the others had a crack at one. Holst actually wrote three, but he’s one of those composers whose entire oeuvre tends to get overshadowed by the existence of a single great work, in his case, the orchestral suite, The Planets. The same goes for Carl Orff with his cantata Carmina Burana ('O Fortuna' has numerous pop culture references, the Old Spice ads in the UK jumping first to mind). Symphonic poems are actually quite a good way to get into purely orchestral music because there is a big descriptive element – symphonies can be a bit abstract I suppose (the more popular term is absolute music) – but when you sit down to listen to piece of music like Gershwin’s An American in Paris or Michael Easton’s An Australian in Paris you know there’s a story or programme which is why they get classified as programme music. Some of the best known pieces in the classical repertoire tell a story. Camille Saint-Saëns wrote many short pieces of program music which he called tone poems. His most famous are probably the Danse Macabre (the title music to Jonathan Creek) and The Carnival of the Animals. Then there’s Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list here. Bax’s Tintagel is an all-time favourite of mine:
Needless to say this little meander through some of my favourite pieces of classical music has barely scratched the surface. What I hope is that it has piqued your interest to investigate further. There are loads of clips in YouTube, most of which I have no doubt are infringing somebody’s copyright, but if you can live with that then you can get to try before you buy. Also, often the composers’ own sites have decent clips. (I recommend you check out this page on Scottish composer Malcolm Lindsay’s site, especially his CD Solitary Citizen – one of my wife’s favourites.) Granted, just because you find one piece you like doesn’t mean you’ll love everything that composer wrote – some of the early works by Glass (e.g. Einstein on the Beach) will drive you to total distraction with their repetitiveness (don’t let the first movement, ‘Knee 1’, fool you – see how long you can tolerate ‘Knee 3’), but his two works based on the albums by David Bowie and Brian Eno, the Low Symphony and Heroes Symphony are a good starting point – his first and fourth symphonies respectively – but personally I prefer his Second and Third Symphonies.
As I’ve grown older I’ve also found myself drawn back to older composers that, in my youth, I skipped over in favour of the more adventurous twentieth century composers. I’ve just had to work my way back to the Bachs, if you’ll pardon the pun. Music plays constantly in this house. All kinds. I often spend a whole day listening to one composer, working my way through the symphonies of Sibelius or only listening to nothing but Baltic composers. Or choral music. Or string quartets. Or works for solo piano.
To start you off on your journey here is a page compiled by the site Meet the Composer providing links to dozens upon dozens of contemporary composers’ personal sites.